Benner/Sports and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Opinion and Sports Business

BENNER: City is on brink of wasting a unique sports asset

July 23, 2011

In last week’s column, I wrote about the Super Bowl and its legacy project, and how it can have a positive impact on residents—especially those on the near-east side—for years after the game has come and gone. It’s a worthy effort.

Thirty years ago, we similarly embraced the so-called “amateur sports initiative” and built facilities (and attracted sports associations) to support it, thanks mostly to Lilly Endowment. All were designed to leave a legacy that would transform Indianapolis into the “amateur sports capital of the world” while fostering and encouraging the sports participation and development of our Indiana youth.

I witnessed that inside my own household. My eldest daughter swam her first laps in the training pool at the Indiana University Natatorium. Then, inspired by witnessing the numerous Olympic and national swimming events that regularly took place at the Nat, she embraced the sport, leading to an eventual grant-in-aid to attend Miami (Ohio) University.

We saw many far more notable examples reach national and Olympic prominence not only in swimming, but also in diving, track and field, gymnastics and cycling.

Regrettably, our “initiative” has lost some of its initiative. The facilities have aged and suffer from neglect (though Marian University’s involvement with the Major Taylor Velodrome is an encouraging step). National championships and Olympic trials no longer fill our sports calendar. For the first time since 1980, we will host no Olympics-related qualifiers next year.

True, we remain prominent in the collegiate realm with NCAA and Big Ten events. But we can’t really proclaim elite amateur sports status any longer. Thirty years ago, the amateur sports thing was sexy and cool. Everyone bought in. Now, not so much. Go Colts.

Then again, there are folks like Pam Robinson. Pam’s the longtime executive director of the Indiana/World Figure Skating Academy at the Pan Am Plaza rinks. The rinks, too, are in deteriorating condition, held together by figurative baling wire and duct tape.

“It’s a challenging environment,” Robinson says.

That does not deter Robinson and her team. Since I work at Pan Am, I see it firsthand. From morning light until deep into the night, the rinks are busy with figure skating, hockey, curling and speed skating. Even in the heat of summer, it’s a cool place to be.

But the rinks in general, and the I/WSA in particular, are on life support.

“We have a rolling extension [from developer Kite Realty Corp.],” says Robinson. “The economy works both for and against us. The irony is that we’ve never been more successful than we are right now.”

Indeed, the rinks are a mini-United Nations. In addition to hundreds of central Indiana youth, skaters from France, Russia, Australia, Canada, Mexico, Great Britain and Sweden are passing through the I/WSA. From July 29-31, the I/WSA will host the largest pairs competition in the world this year, with 68 teams competing. One of those pairs, Cassie Andrews and Tim LeDuc, is home-grown I/WSA talent. The duo is ranked seventh in the world and could represent the United States in the 2014 Olympics.

Meanwhile, the rinks also host up to 12 hockey tournaments a year. Robinson cites a study that shows the rinks delivering $26 million in direct spending annually.

But the time bomb is ticking and no one knows when it will go off. Robinson has pursued as many as 20 locations in Marion County to build a facility that could host the I/WSA and all the other Pan Am activities. She estimates it would cost $9 million. It still could happen.

For now, however, “we’re in total limbo,” she says. “People have told us we’re like the cockroaches of the ice-skating community, that we can survive anything. So we march forward, trying this, trying that, while we continue to seek funding and a new location.”

And if they can’t?

“This will be gone,” she says. “And all the kids and the coaches here will go to another state and another site. I wish I could get the right people to understand that this is so unique, something other cities would love to have. It seems we’ve lost our direction in being an amateur sports capital. The pendulum has swung to professional sports.”

Call it skating on thin ice.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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